Tunisia – Mediterranean Africa
It’s easy to categorise Tunisia as just another beach. Indeed for a time the country’s tourism marketing seemed focused solely on its sandy shores ignoring that they were one and the same with the North African coast. Certainly Tunisia does seaside very well. However, beyond the Mediterranean, landscapes vary greatly, from oak forests, gentle rolling hills, vineyards and mountains to salt lakes, unforgiving arid planes and endless dune seas.
Together with a contemporary melange of Arab, Berber, French and African cultural influences, rich Roman ancient history, significant WW2 heritage and a pre-eminent roll in the ‘Arab Spring’, Tunisia reveals itself as a far more complex and intriguing destination than at first glance.
Bordering Algeria and Libya, Tunisia is similar in size to England and Wales combined, with a population of 10 million, 30% of whom are concentrated in just four coastal cities – Tunis, Sfax, Kairouan and Sousse. Lacking the petrochemical punch of its neighbours, tourism has been a Tunisian mainstay.
The beaches of Hammamet, Monastir, Boujaffar, Gammarth and others have long been tempting escapes for pallid northern Europeans. Upmarket hotels offer international levels of comfort and as the country fights to rebuild its tourism numbers, flight and hotel packages are even better value then ever.
Elsewhere, headline sites of antiquity such as the remarkable El Djem amphitheatre, the multi-layered ruins of Carthage, and the intestinal medinas of Tunis and Sousse see Tunisia chalk up more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other African country except Ethiopia. A consequence of this rich concentration of dramatic backdrops, both manmade and natural, is Tunisia’s A-list cinematic celebrity status, playing staring rolls in George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient and Monty Python’s timeless satire, The Life of Brian.
At two and a half hours flying time, getting to Tunis or Enfidha from London or a slew of UK regionals is hardly a long haul. Ferries from mainland Italy, France and Sicily further strengthen northerly connections and it’s not uncommon to see European cars zipping along Tunisia’s modern peage, drivers quite likely en route to chic holiday villas.
In the country’s south-west, the unstoppable sandy tsunami of the Grand Erg Oriental’s spills over from Algeria, part of a 100,000 square kilometre sea of dunes. Step forward the somewhat gritty tourist town of Douz whose reputation as ‘The Gateway to the Sahara’ has been built upon sand, offering desert adventures, from day-trips to an oasis, to 4x4 safaris, horseriding hacks and hard core 100km camel treks.
However, that’s not to say the country runs entirely on souvenir ceramics, stuffed toy camels and backshish. If you choose to holiday in Tunisia it’s possible your Beneton shirts are coming home to mama, your rental car was bolted together in one of Tunisia’s 60 assembly plants and if you jetted in on an Airbus aircraft it’s likely its avionics were ‘Made in Tunisia’ too.
In 2011, after 24 years of Western-backed dictatorship, the popular uprising of the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ saw kleptocratic former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his much reviled wife Leila book a one-way, last minute, all-inclusive package to sunny Saudi Arabia. Though the process of political reconstruction is still ‘work in progress’, since late 2011 the country has been administered by a democratically elected coalition led by the moderate Islamic Ennahda party.
In Tunisia today French chic and Arab exoticism swirl around each other in a heady cocktail of secular European, Arab and Islamic living. A coastal strip of easy-going Mediterranean relaxation proffers breezes, bikinis and Bacardi and Coke, whilst inland the Muezzin’s calls are more regular than disco bass beats, and in the places in between remnants of ancient empires are reminders of human frailty and time’s relentless passage.
Against all this, beyond the coastal resorts and beyond the villages, where the tarmac runs out and roads become tracks in the sand, the vertigo-inducing emptiness of the Sahara awaits in grand indifference.
About the author
Nick Redmayne is a travel writer and occasional broadcaster. From time in Khartoum as a sub-editor for the Sudanese News Agency, via Beirut’s chic restaurants and Benghazi’s cigarette smoke-filled cafes, Nick’s desire to get off the beaten track finally led him to relocate to the wilds of Northumberland in 1997.
Northern Tunisia’s climate is often described as ‘Mediterranean’, a short spring and dry, hot summer up to 35 Celsius, followed by a brief autumn and mild winter. Further south, Africa’s continental weather patterns dominate, the seasons being truncated into a long summer with highs in excess of 45 Celsius towards the Sahara, followed by a short rainy winter season. In the northern mountains of Ain Draham heavy winter snowfall is common, and in 2013 for the first time since 1962 snow has been reported as far south as Matmata.
When to go
Many visitors choose to visit Tunisia in the heat of summer when daytime activity is necessarily limited to seeking out any patch of deep shade that combines a sea breeze with total immersion in a cool drink. That said, if watersports are your pleasure this isn’t an issue - sea temperatures start heading the right side of 20 Celsius from late May and only drop back down in mid-November. Away from the sea the surprising fertility of the north is best appreciated from mid-March when burgeoning green growth fills the fields with new life before the arrival of summer’s desiccating heat. However, if ancient life is of more interest, Tunisia’s archaeological sites see fewer crowds and lend themselves to more considered interpretation during the occasionally rainy or overcast days of winter. Further south, the tail end of the year is also the season for all forms of Sahara exploration, most longer 4x4 safaris and camel treks running from November to March.
How to get there
Two Tunisian international airports are currently served by direct flights from the UK – Tunis and Enfidha. No direct flights operate from the UK to Djerba, the country’s southern gateway, but domestic connections via Tunis’s modern airport are usually straightforward. Inevitably fewer bargains are available during peak periods such as school holidays – flexibility is the key. International car ferries serve La Goulette (Tunis), Bezerte and Sfax from Genoa, Civitavecchia and Salerno in mainland Italy, the French port of Marseilles and more regularly from Trapani and Palermo in Sicily. Most routes can be booked through Southern Ferries (southernferries.com) or Via Mare (viamare.com).
Airports transfers are usually part of a holiday package but if making your own way to a resort whilst weighed down by baggage it’s worth arranging transport in advance. A2B Transfers (a2btransfers.com) and Resorthoppa (resorthoppa.com) offer shuttle buses and pre-booked taxis from most airports. Obviously you can just grab cab on arrival but some longer journeys are expensive and taxi drivers have gained a deserved notoriety for refusing to use meters and overcharging. Local buses are very cheap, less than a Dinar, and can be just the trick if you’re simply heading downtown.
View Tunisia resorts in a larger map
Travel preparation for a holiday
Here are some additional useful tips to help you plan your holiday to Tunisia.
- Tunisia is one hour ahead of GMT. The country does not adjust the clocks at the onset of summer or at other times.
- The flight time is two and half hours from the UK, three from Ireland.
- The official currency is the Dinar (TND), which trades at approximately two to the GBP. Foreign currencies can be easily exchanged on arrival. ATMs are available in the main cities and towns, though check with your local bank on fees.
- Currency cannot be taken out of the country, so don't change or obtain much more than you need. If you need to change it back to Sterling you should be able to do at the airport or your hotel, but the commission is very high, around 30%..
- The official language of Tunisia is Arabic, though most people also speak French. Being close to the Peninsula, Spanish is also widely spoken, and you’ll find English-speaking staff in the resorts and tourist areas.
- The cost of eating out in Tunisia varies widely, from 100 TND for a seafood meal for two in the resorts to less than half that in a perfectly acceptable brassiere style restaurant serving merguez (spicy lamb and beef sausages) and salad. Street food such as Tunisian pizza can be picked up for a few Dinar. Like most Arabic countries alcohol is expensive. Local wines, such as the gris blend (akin to a light rosé) tend to be cheaper – and often very good!
- Entry requirements: All EU and US citizens only require a passport with 90 days validity. Australian, SA and NZ visitors travelling independently do require a visa, which can be obtained upon arrival. However the travel forums are reporting it can take hours for the transaction. If you can, apply for the visa at your local Tunisian embassy before you leave to save time.
- Unlike neighbouring Morocco, non-Muslims are allowed to visit Tunisia’s mosques. However do respect local custom by dressing appropriately – woman should keep arms and shoulders covered.
- For official Tunisia tourist information click here - Come To Tunisa
- The Foreign and Commonwealth Office reports that most visits to Tunisia are trouble free, yet given the recent political unrest in the country there are some common-sense things to consider. For the latest information the latest on the Foreign Travel Advice website.